After a year off in 2012, the CFL's Touchdown Atlantic series returns Saturday with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats taking on the Montreal Alouettes in Moncton, New Brunswick (4 p.m. Eastern, TSN/ESPN3). The series started in 2010 with Edmonton beating Toronto 24-6 and continued in 2011 with Hamilton thumping Calgary 55-36, and while both games were reasonably well-attended and created some excitement about the CFL in the Maritimes, neither seemed to really deliver much momentum to move towards a long-term franchise in Atlantic Canada (something which will be a considerable challenge on several levels). The question is if this one can be a firm step in that process, or if it will prove to be just a one-off.
While there was still talk about Maritime expansion in the air in 2012, the league didn't have a Touchdown Atlantic event last season, seemingly slowing the momentum further. They might not have even brought it back this year if it wasn't for the Tiger-Cats being on the road anyways; this counts as a home game for Hamilton and might even work out better for them financially than a typical game in Guelph. It's notable that much of the expansion talk has shifted to Quebec City, too, a city that was once thought out of the question thanks to the presence of the Laval Rouge et Or in the city and the Montreal Alouettes in the province. Quebec City may be a red herring meant to motivate people out East, or it may have actually leapfrogged a Maritime team as the next in line. Regardless, there's a lot that would have to happen for a Maritime franchise to enter the CFL, something Drew Edwards explored well in this Hamilton Spectator piece:
The stadium at the University of Moncton is fine for one-offs but it’s ill-suited to host a franchise on a permanent basis. Even at its current configuration at 16,000 seats — 4,000 less than the last time the Cats were here — there is far too much end zone seating and not enough of what makes modern stadiums rake in the cash: social seating areas, club seats and suites. The new CFL economics allows for smaller buildings but where and what those seats are matters a great deal.
There are also legitimate questions about Moncton’s ability to sustain a franchise given its small population — about 138,000 — and its relatively small corporate base. The 2011 Touchdown Atlantic wasn’t a sellout and there were, as of this week, still several hundred tickets available for Saturday’s game. The street festivals and tailgate parties which gave the 2011 event a mini-Grey Cup vine are noticeably absent this time around. It feels like just another road game and the city, the league and teams appear to be treating it as such.
There are less obvious issues in the way as well. A tenth franchise means a smaller slice of the TV and sponsorship pie for the eight (and soon to be nine) existing teams, something which can only be offset by an increase in revenue. But does an East Coast franchise appealing to relatively small audience make the CFL more attractive to large corporate advertisers and, just as importantly these days, to potential TV rights holders? Unlikely.
Between stadium concerns (Moncton and Halifax have both been proposed as potential CFL cities, but neither has much of a stadium answer at the moment), issues with the lack of corporate sponsorship and the question of who would actually own the team, it looks like there still are plenty of hurdles in the way of an Atlantic CFL franchise. Saturday's game could prove crucial on that front, though, and the response to it may be particularly revelatory. If the Tiger-Cats and Alouettes put on a show, get people talking about the league and convince politicians, wealthy potential owners and local corporations that a CFL franchise in Atlantic Canada is worth pursuing, then something might happen. It seems the momentum may have to come from that side, though. The league's already devoted a lot of time, energy and money to these Touchdown Atlantic events, and there hasn't been a great deal of tangible return yet. If nothing in particular comes of Saturday's game, it could well be the last CFL action in the Maritimes for a while.